Expatriate writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), spending his last few days in Rome before he returns to the States, is wandering back to his apartment one evening when his attention is drawn to the brightly-lit facade of an art gallery. The gallery is on two levels, its exhibits mostly sculptures - strange, twisted, threatening objects. On the upper level, a woman dressed in white is struggling with a black-clad figure. Sprinting across the road, Sam tries to gain entry, intent on helping her. A large sliding glass door, locked and immovable, stops him. While he struggles, the black-clad figure leaps down to the lower level, leaving the woman bleeding from a stab wound, and disappears through a rear exit ... though not before triggering a mechanism which closes a second glass door behind Sam. Trapped, and looking like a bizarre live-art addition to the galleries exhibits, Sam is helpless, impotent, unable to do anything but await the police's arrival and hope the woman doesn't expire in the meantime.
Unusually, the police arrive in a timely fashion ... then immediately revert to giallo type as they spectacularly fail to generate any leads. In fact, Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno)'s only attempt at pro-active police work is to organise an identity parade for Sam's benefit, rounding up a group of usual suspects ("right, bring in the perverts"). Sam avers that he didn't see the attacker's face. All he can be sure about is that some aspect of what he witnessed doesn't seem right - but he just can't put his finger on it. A foiled attack on him on his way home, followed by threatening phone calls advising him to go back to America, do nothing to quell his curiosity and he begins his own investigation, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall). Sam ties in the attack at the gallery with a recent series of murders of young women which the police - surprise, surprise - have no suspects for.
Sam learns that one of the earlier victims worked at an antique shop. The proprietor tells him that she sold a macabre picture just before she was killed. Sam obtains a catalogue photo of the painting and eventually tracks down the artist, but he proves as unhelpful as he is eccentric and the trail goes cold. Then another clue falls into place and seems to lead Sam back to where he started. But there are still a few surprises in store for him ...
'The Bird with the Crystal Plumage' was Argento's first film and an immediate success. He followed it up very quickly with 'The Cat O'Nine Tails', establishing himself as a master of the giallo and inviting comparions to Hitchcock. Praise indeed! And yet 'TBWTCP' isn't without its flaws: Musante and Kendall turn in wooden performances, an early indicator of Argento's tendency to casting bland actors in lead roles (cf. James Franciscus in 'The Cat O'Nine Tails', Leigh McCluskey in 'Inferno'); the script, while clever in terms of structure and misdirection, is bogged down with clunky exposition; the attempts at comedy (an effeminate antique shop owner, a pimp with a speech impediment) are laboured and unfunny.
So why does Argento owe his career to it? Why is it still considered a classic of its kind? Why is it still being paid homage to (most recently by Quentin Tarantino in 'Death Proof')? The Hitchcock comparison provides an answer: like Argento, Hitch was never a director of actors ("actors are cattle" is one of his most cutting and oft-quoted homilies); his fame derives instead from bold, hugely memorable set-pieces, wrought with tension, which are perfectly geared to the visual potential of the medium. The crop dusting plane and the Mount Rushmore finale in 'North by Northwest', the shower scene in 'Psycho', [insert personal favourite here].
Same deal with Argento. At his best, he's capable of wringing every possible drop of tension from a scene then still making you jump when he delivers the pay-off. Visually, his films are full of striking compositions and often surreal colour schemes (although his recent work has, sadly, demonstrated a curbing of his excesses in this respect). Some stand-outs from 'TBWTCP': the iconic opening scene, the black-clad figure stark against the clinical white of the gallery, Sam trapped between the bright interior and the nocturnal street outside (the now discontinued Killing in Style has a perceptive article on this scene); a claustrophic cat-and-mouse sequence as a gunman stalks Sam through a bus depot, the closely parked buses forming a maze of sorts as Sam tries both to evade his antagonist and find a way out; Julia menaced as she waits for Sam to return from his meeting with the painter, desperately trying to escape the apartment through a back window as the front door begins to splinter under the killer's assault; Sam at a disadvantage, pinned beneath one of the sculptures at the art gallery as he finally realises who's behind it all.
Ultimately, if 'TBWTCP' isn't quite top-flight Argento it still stands as a statement of intent - a clear indication of the idiosyncratic style he would develop as a film-maker.